HAIL, CAESAR! (2016, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Early on, a screening of a rough cut has two missing elements: one is the crew credits, the other is God, identified by a slate that reads something like “Divine presence to be shot.” This is a very Coen move — first, the double meaning involved with “to be shot,” and second, the idea that what’s missing in the movies are credit and religion. Later, a movie star delivering a powerful monologue forgets a word in his line: that word is “faith.”
This lack of faith runs throughout HAIL, CAESAR! and the theme becomes a huge weight on its shoulders. The narrative begins and ends at a Catholic confession (the opening shot of the film is Christ nailed to the cross), and the eponymous picture being filmed on the lot is a Biblical epic told from the Romans’ point of view. But the movies and Hollywood itself are filled with lies, sins, and artifice, and that crisis mostly falls on Josh Brolin’s lead character Eddie Mannix. Mannix thinks he’s pretty bad, even going to confession over the guilt he suffers from smoking a cigarette or slapping a movie star. But what we learn over the course of these two hours is that everything is phony: the handsome kid with the bright smile wears dentures; the girl-next-door starlet is knocked up by who-knows; the sailors on screen do a homoerotic dance during a song about how much they’ll miss their women; the All-American Navy boy is a Comrade in the Communist Party. A film director keeps correcting Hobie when poor apologetic Hobie mispronounces his name, but the director calls Hobie “Herbie.” Even the would-be intellectual Communist writers don’t know what they’re talking about, can’t agree on anything, and despite wanting to liberate from their capitalist opressors, they keep telling each other to shut up.
And while all of this behind-the-curtain charade-revealing is being done, the constant reminders of religion, the lack thereof, and the unreliability of any given system are blinking lights around the screen. (Even a meeting between Mannix and four men of the clergy devolves into petty bickering and semantic one-upsmanship). The ultimate effect of all of this Very Deep Subject Matter is that it drops a heavy wet blanket onto the entertainment value of what looks on the surface like a light-hearted, fleet-footed screwball comedy. If only the script had the snap of the Coens’ sensational 2003 farce INTOLERABLE CRUELTY; instead it hisses air like a flat tire. Only a few scenes bring the film to life, almost all of which involve explosive star Alden Ehrenreich (the “Would that it were so simple” bit should be most-talked-about, I’d imagine). But when Clooney is blathering on about shaving Danny Kaye’s back, or Scarlett Johansson is hitting on Jonah Hill, or the Communists are bloviating… the movie just sits there and dies: a flavorless serving of intellectual nutrients without the exuberant taste that would come with a funnier script. And although there’s a lot to process here, and although I admire having as much to think about as I did with A SERIOUS MAN or INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, what I wanted was to eat a cobb salad with bacon, egg, chicken, and avocado — but all I got served was a kale caesar.